A seat at the table: How can women’s participation promote peace in Syria?

Over the past seven years of fighting in Syria, repeated international efforts to broker peace have produced no long-term resolution. Today, many people inside and outside Syria discount repeated rounds of peace talks as an exercise in futility, particularly as government forces recapture more and more of the country.

Most recently, United Nations-led negotiations in Geneva in December 2017 collapsed after representatives of the Syrian government refused to discuss the two most central agenda points: a new constitution and presidential elections. While participants of a Russian-led peace conference this past January agreed on a plan to form a constitutional committee, most of the Syrian opposition boycotted the talks. 

As parallel UN- and Russian-led peace processes remain largely deadlocked, one simple strategy has yet to be tried: including more women.

“Including more women at the peace table is not just the right thing to do, but actually the smart and strategic thing to do,” contends Rachel Vogelstein, director of the Women in Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a Washington-based think tank.

In a 2018 interactive report entitled “Women’s Participation in Peace Processes”, Vogelstein and her team at CFR present 12 case studies evaluating the formal and informal roles that women have played in peace processes around the world, including Syria.

When women participate in peace talks as negotiators, signatories, mediators or witnesses, the resulting agreement is 35 percent more likely to last more than 15 years, according to a 2015 study of 182 peace agreements from 1989 to 2011 published by the New York-based International Peace Institute.

Even so, women made up only 15 percent of negotiators at the December 2017 round of UN-led Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

“We should invest in a proven strategy that will make a peace deal more likely to be forged in the first instance, and also more likely to last,” Vogelstein tells Syria Direct’s Alice Al Maleh.

In a series of five interviews over the next week, Syria Direct will be exploring the different roles Syrian women have taken on to work for peace, from the highest diplomatic levels of the UN down to the grassroots of the Syrian society.

In this first installment, researcher Vogelstein makes a case for Syrian women holding more seats at the negotiating table.

“The notion that we have an opportunity to improve the sustainability and durability of peace simply by including women at the table is an important insight that we really can't afford to ignore,” she says.

Q:  Why should more women be included in the peacebuilding process?

At this point, there is a quite compelling body of evidence that women's participation in conflict prevention and conflict resolution contributes to peace and stability, improving outcomes before, during and after conflict.

For example, research suggests that the participation of civil society groups, including women's organizations, in a peace negotiation makes a resulting peace agreement 64 percent less likely to fail. It also makes it more likely that a peace agreement is forged in the first instance. We also have evidence suggesting that when women participate in peace processes the resulting agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years.

In an era characterized by recidivism in conflict, the notion that we have an opportunity to improve the sustainability and durability of peace simply by including women at the table is an important insight that we really can't afford to ignore.

Despite women's contributions to both preventing and resolving conflicts, they are often excluded from negotiating tables. So, the case that we've made here at the Council on Foreign Relations is that including women at the peace table is not just the right thing to do, but actually the smart and strategic thing to do.

Q: In 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution recognizing that including women in peace processes ‘can significantly contribute to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.’ Have there been notable changes in the level of women’s participation in the years since, according to your research?

Yes, I think the number of countries and governments that have elevated the idea that it is important to have women involved in peacemaking and peacekeeping has risen substantially since the 2000 resolution. For example, a number of countries have enacted national action plans to ensure women's participation in peace and security through national government strategies [Ed.:As of March 2018, 74 countries have adopted a national action plan to implement the 2000 UN resolution].

On the other hand, when you look at the numbers, you can see that the number of women who are participating at the peace table has only increased incrementally. It's an incredibly slow progress, and I would argue that much more needs to be done. In particular, we need greater resources to make sure that women's participation in the peace and security sectors is possible.

Q: What can be done to include more women?

There are a number of different ways. In the 2017 CFR report [How Women’s Participation in Conflict Prevention and Resolution Advances US Interests], we recommend adopting the UN target of [directing] 15 percent of all peacebuilding and security assistance to conflict-affected countries to efforts promoting women's participation and protection. That includes funding and long-term support for local women's groups to increase their capacity.

We [also] encourage the UN and other international actors to ensure that women represent at least 30 percent of the delegates at peace and security processes. A precondition of participation in a peace process should be a target of 30 percent female participation, with women in formal roles, not just in informal roles as civil society actors.

I think that the two keys here are ensuring women's participation and place at the table, and then making sure that there are sufficient resources to support that participation.

Q: When including women in peace negotiations, how can we ensure that the concerns of women are taken seriously and that they don’t end up as “window dressing” without any actual influence?

I think that the types of roles that women have matter. For example, if women are consigned to an exterior process, and not given formal roles, their ability to influence [the outcome] is affected.

There is a body of social science research that suggests that when women reach a critical threshold of 30 percent,  their voices begin to carry influence in ways that are more [influential] than when women are under that threshold. This is true certainly outside the realm of conflicts, in political life, and even in private sector leadership.

That was the case, for example, in [a 2004 study of a local village council in] India. When women's participation reached that 30 percent level at the local village council, analyses showed that there were differences in decision-making behavior: Women [on the council] became more likely in the aggregate to invest in sanitation, safe drinking water and education, so [there were] pronounced policy shifts.

When you map that onto a conflict setting, we don't have examples of women reaching that threshold, so it's hard, from a research perspective, to make a strong, evidence-based argument about the appropriate level of participation or set of roles that would optimize [women’s] influence. But what we know from other sectors is that having formal roles and having a critical mass has been shown to make a difference in those contexts.

Q: Moving to the Syrian context specifically, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, established a Women’s Advisory Board in 2016 and invited 12  Syrian women to participate as third party observers at the Geneva negotiations. How would you assess the role and effectiveness of that board to date?

Although the UN-led talks began in 2012, this advisory board was not created until 2016, so years passed without women’s participation. And, while it is great to have this advisory board, participating as a third party observer is not the same as having a formal seat at the table.

Men dramatically outnumber women in terms of official roles. Women comprised about 15 percent of the opposition and government delegations in the talks that took place in December in Geneva. There is still a lot of work to do.


Delegates at the eighth round of UN-led Syrian peace talks in Geneva on December 14, 2017. Photo courtesy of Xu Jinquan/POOL/AFP.

Q: In what other ways have women in Syria participated in the peace process?

Women, whether at the negotiating table or participating in civil society, have broadened the agenda, crossed divides and actually helped negotiate local ceasefires.

For example, a group of local women in a Damascus suburb pressured a military group to accept a 20-day ceasefire with regime forces, Inclusive Security reported in 2014 [Ed.: a non-governmental organization aiming to promote the inclusion of women in peace processes through research and advocacy].

In 2011, women blocked a highway [in the coastal town of Baida, demanding the release of detainees]. [The protest] resulted in the release of hundreds of people from villages who had been rounded up illegally.

There is also a story where a group of armed fighters had entered a village, and if the men went outside they would be killed. Women went outside, surrounded the fighters and forced them to leave [according to an account of a participant in a meeting of the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy in 2014].

Q: The Geneva peace talks have been accused of being ineffective and detached from developments on the ground, particularly as severe violence continues in Syria. If the efficacy of the talks themselves is questioned, what is the significance of including women, in your view?

Increased violence underscores the need for greater diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict. We should invest in a proven strategy—namely, including women—that will make a peace deal more likely to be forged and more likely to last.

In light of the research, the question is not, ‘why is it important to include women?’ but rather, ‘why would we not take advantage of the opportunity to have the strongest possible outcome and the greatest likelihood of forging a deal and making it likely to last.’

The latest round of peace talks held in Sochi crumbled, following a set of unsuccessful UN talks in January, and [here] we have a strategy that is really not that costly to implement, and that evidence suggests will make the diplomatic efforts that are so needed more successful. So, the question I would pose is: ‘Why not do it?’

Q: If including more women in the peace process is such an obvious solution, why is progress so slow? What are the barriers?

We often hear that including new actors, including women's groups, in a negotiation, can threaten already fragile deliberations. However, the evidence shows otherwise. We have evidence that women's participation as negotiators, as experts, or as representatives of civil society, in fact decreases the threat of spoilers to the negotiation and increases the public perception of legitimacy. It improves the likelihood of reaching and sustaining an agreement.

Culture is [also] often cited as a threat to the feasibility of women's participation in peace and security processes. For example, there are concerns that promoting women's participation would be culturally inappropriate. What that really overlooks is that, whether we're talking about Syria, Afghanistan, or Yemen, there are local actors in conservative societies that have led calls for gender quotas or for the inclusion of women's perspectives at the table. There is an indigenous interest in women's participation. It can present an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a more equitable and prosperous future, for a post-conflict nation. [There is] really strong evidence that women's participation across not only political life, but also economic and social life, is correlated with both prosperity and stability.

Some claim that women's participation in peace and security processes is not possible, because of the lack of women with the necessary technical expertise. It is absolutely the case that in most regions of the world, women are vastly underrepresented in national politics or in the armed forces, but we've also seen that this gap is starting to close. This is in part due to training and capacity-building, and in many cases there are local civil society organizations and international mediators that have identified a pool of really highly-qualified female negotiators and experts to offer to delegations.

Others say that women are not universally peaceful, and therefore dispute the notion that women's participation in peace and security efforts will necessarily lead to better results. And it absolutely is the case that women leaders have taken countries to war, served in combat roles around the world, and that women are increasingly being drawn to extremist organizations. But what those examples show is that women are influential in whatever capacity they serve, whether moderating and peaceful forces in a community or serving as armed combatants or military leaders. So, including them in both the prevention and resolution of conflict is critical, and we overlook that opportunity by failing to recognize the influence that they already have.

One last [argument] that we hear is that [the inclusion of women in peace processes] is important but that there is not enough evidence, compared with other initiatives, to justify spending critical time or resources to promote the integration of women. We don't have all the evidence we need, but the empirical analyses that we do have suggest that women's participation across the conflict spectrum—whether we're talking about early warning and prevention, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, or even post-conflict recovery processes—is associated with an improved outcome.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.